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Monday, July 13, 2009

Water Project District: Where's Lake Herman?

...for that matter, where is everybody?

[Part 4 in a series!]

The proposed Interlakes Water Project District (which faces a public vote Saturday, July 18) would include the sanitary districts currently established around Lakes Madison and Brant. As you may recall, the original plan was to include the Lake Herman Sanitary District in the district. However, political opposition (I heard the Lake Herman Development Association—i.e., fishermen—said they would hire a lawyer to fight any such new district) induced the water project district (WPD) organizers to leave Herman out.
Including Lake Herman would have created an oddly discontiguous jurisdiction... though no more odd than the Heartland Consumer Power District (with outposts in Groton, Volga, and Madison) and the United States (Alaska and Hawaii). Including Herman would have made hydrological sense (hydro-logic?): the 17,000 acres draining into Lake Herman are the head of the Lake County branch of the Lower Big Sioux Watershed, which flows through Silver Creek to Lake Madison.

Now opponents of the WPD contend that leaving Herman out of the plan compromises the WPD's ability to solve water quality issues. (Make group happy, torque off another—you can't win 'em all!) At the July 11 public meeting in Chester, WPD supporters offered a number of responses on why leaving Herman out won't be so bad:
  1. The district's taxing authority is limited to its legal boundaries, but it can spend that money on projects anywhere in the watershed. For example, the WPD could lease land north of Lake Herman to plant switchgrass along the tributary that brings lots of ag run-off into the lake by the golf course. (However, it is worth noting that Robert Todd, lead organizer of the WPD, said he is "concerned" about spending money on projects that would directly benefit Lake Herman when no one on Lake Herman is paying.)
  2. Lakes Madison and Brant drain their own 29,000-acre watershed. Even if they never touched the Herman watershed, they could do a lot of water quality work.
  3. Lake Herman doesn't have the population and tax base to make the district work. Robert Todd said that the planned assessment levels would add only $10,000 from Herman to the $80,000 the WPD tentatively plans to raise from Lakes Madison and Brant. Attorney Rolly Samp said that the biggest landowner on Herman is the State of South Dakota, and unless the state decides to offer payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT—my new policy term of the weekend!), Herman just can't support such a levy.
  4. Lake Herman itself is not the leading source of pollutants. Robert Todd gave the example of phosphorus: while Herman has noticeable phosphorus levels, those levels jump significantly before the water reaches Lake Madison. Todd cited the old poultry facility (that would be Wenk's), ag operations north of Madison, the city itself, and the north shore of Lake Madison as key sources of that phosphorus.
I find point 3 particularly interesting. "Only" $10,000 from Lake Herman is still double the highest tax ever levied by the Lake Herman Sanitary District and almost five times the current tax levy.

More interesting is a combination of points 1 and 4. As WPD committeeman Martin Jarrett pointed out at Saturday's meeting, 85% of the pollution affecting water quality in Lake County comes from agriculture. 14% comes from the City of Madison. It's not like us dang dirty folks at Lake Herman are sending algae blooms to Lake Madison. The WPD could include Herman, and it still would be taxing a bunch of people who aren't the main cause of the problem.

Put harshly, the WPD will take money from lake residents and redistribute it to polluters. This money flow seems backward. At the very least, it suggests that the WPD would do better to include the entire county, or at least the formal watershed boundaries (folks up Nunda way send their water down a different track), so that the major polluters would at least bear some tax burden.

Better yet, let's be creative: perhaps we need a local version of cap-and-trade for nutrient run-off. Give every resident a certain per-acre phosphorus and nitrate allotment. If you want to use chemical fertilizer or run a certain number of cattle above your allotment, you have to buy nutrient credits from organic farmers or landowners who aren't using their allotment. Or perhaps a county-wide WPD could simply impose a higher levy on the ag land identified as the primary source of nutrient load and soil eroision.

The WPD organizers emphasize that the district, if approved Saturday, will be open to expansion. If Lake Herman or the city of Madison or any other jurisdiction wants to join, those residents can petition and vote and start contributing tax dollars right along with Lakes Madison and Brant. For now, as the organizers say, we've got to start somewhere.

But including Lake Herman, by itself, is not a solution. The WPD organizers themselves now say so. The WPD can do work anywhere in the watershed, with or without the official participation of Lake Herman. The only direct effect of including an area in the WPD is to raise that area's taxes. At that point, the question should be not "Where's Lake Herman?" but "Where is everybody?"

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